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SUMO: Natsu Basho Senshuraku [Final Day] (Day 15)

It’s senshuraku [the final day] of the 2016 Natsu Basho, and for the first time in many tournaments the outcome of the yusho [tournament championship] is not in question at all. Over the past year, it’s been pretty common for Day 15 to start with a single leader who, with a win or the loss of a single close competitor, could lock up the title. At the very least, there was a mathematical chance that there could be a playoff, even if it was highly unlikely. Not so this time around.

With yokozuna Hakuho’s win over yokozuna Harumafuji, and ozeki Kisenosato’s loss to yokozuna Kakuryu, it is 100% certain that Hakuho has won his record-expanding 37th yusho. You might say that his match against Kakuryu today is just for yokozuna pride, but the fact of the matter is that Hakuho has a couple of career goals that he’s still chasing that make the win more than a matter of passing interest. First of all, if he wins today and gets a perfect 15–0 record, it will be the 12th zensho yusho [no-loss tournament championship]. To put that in perspective, if you look at the list of all-time most championships in a career, number eight on that list is a tie between two Futabayama (one of the all-time greatest yokozuna) and Musashimaru (one of only two ever American yokozuna) with a total of 12. So, if Hakuho gets this, he’ll have enough that if you ONLY counted his perfect record yusho wins he’s still be in the top ten of most wins all-time and tied with two of the most famous yokozuna of all time. Additionally, as I mentioned yesterday, by winning today he’d rack up his 29th straight win, and give himself at least a possibility of taking a run at a record that’s eluded him thus far—most consecutive wins. He’d still be a long way away from the record—two and a half more full tournaments—but he’d at least have a chance.

Don’t forget, there are still lots of other meaningful matches to be played and a lot of interesting storylines to wrap up throughout the banzuke [ranking sheet]. Not the least of which is Kisenosato’s performance and what it means in the context of his overall career.

There’s no doubting that Kisenosato is one of the best rikishi of the last decade. It’s been his misfortune that this has been the decade when one of the best rikishi of all time has been fighting. In any other era, Kisenosato would have won at least half-a-dozen yusho (he’s finished second in nine of them, and likely that number will rise to ten when the day is over), and in all likelihood would have been promoted to yokozuna. While that makes for great sports talk over bar food, the fact of the matter is that Kisenosato DOES fight in this era and whenever he’s been given a chance to grab the proverbial brass ring he’s come up short. I’ve commented over the past year that he has developed a habit of losing focus or presuming victory in cases when he needed to knuckle down and take command (I often have phrased this by saying he “likes the trappings of being an ozeki, but doesn’t really want to put the work in that would make him a great ozeki”).

On the flip side, it’s usually only a couple of matches per basho that he shows this lackadaisical side, and in the current Natsu Basho in particular he has had thirteen spectacular days (even including his loss to Hakuho, in which he fought like a champion) and only one poor day. It seems unfair and unkind to measure him by that one day, particularly when he’s regularly racking up tournament totals equal to or better than Harumafuji and Kakuryu. But those two have shown in the past that they CAN put it all together for a full fortnight and win a yusho—Kisenosato never has. He’s always stumbled before he can hoist the Emperor’s Cup. And through that, they have earned their yokozuna promotions. For all he’s done, until Kisenosato has done, for as strong and competitive as he’s been for such a long time, he will remain a guy with the reputation of not being able to get the job done until such time as he proves the pundits wrong.

Kisenosato’s performance yesterday was disappointing because he proved them right again. He can mitigate that somewhat if he comes back strong today in his bout against Harumafuji, but I’m sure this basho is going to haunt him, quite possibly more than any of his nine other “almost made it” tournaments.

As for the rest of the field, there are A LOT of losing records out there. So far twenty-three rikishi have gotten 8 or more losses and are locked in makekoshi [majority of losses] (this includes three rikishi who pulled out of the tournament because of injury), while only fourteen rikishi have secured kachikoshi [majority of wins]. Four rikishi, however, enter Sunday’s action with 7–7 records and holding their fates in their own hands. Thankfully, the Kyokai was merciful and isn’t pitting any of them against each other. So I think I’m going to include all of their bouts in today’s feature matches.

M12 Takekaze (7–7) vs. M15 Endo (11–3)—Takekaze is one of the rikishi on the bubble at 7–7. If he wins today, he gets kachikoshi, if not it’s makekoshi and a demotion for him. His opponent Endo already has double-digit wins and is sure to leap up the banzuke for the Nagoya basho, but the Kyokay [Sumo Association] has dangled another possibility to keep him focused on this match. If he wins today, Endo will get the kanto-sho [fighting spirit prize]—one of three special prizes that are sometimes awarded at the end of a basho. If he loses, no special prize for Endo. (2:38)

M11 Chiyootori (7–7) vs. M14 Seiro (5–9)—Chiyootori is also one of the bubble rikishi. While he’s fighting for a winning record, his opponent seiro already has makekoshi and is almost certainly headed back down to the Juryo division next tournament. A win here, though, would help mitigate how far down he’ll sink into the lower division . . . and thus, how difficult it will be for him to fight his way back up to Makuuchi. (3:00)

M9 Sokokurai (6–8) vs. M10 Sadanoumi (7–7)—The third of our bubble rikishi is Sadanoumi. There’s a little less drama with this one as a loss will not put either him or his opponent in jeopardy of dropping out of Makuuchi. The thing is, both Sadanoumi and Sokokurai are ranked about right at M9 and M10 . . . this is the level that their skills warrant. But in sumo, there is no “holding your spot.” Because there are an odd number of matches in a tournament, you’re constantly moving either up or down . . . and so many rikishi seem to end up “orbiting” the ranking that they deep down deserve. (4:02)

Komusubi Kaisei (7–7) vs. M5 Tochiozan (8–6)—Kaisei is the only sanyaku-ranked rikishi who still has a chance at kachikoshi, meaning that if he can pull out a win today he might be the only one of the four who will still be sanyaku next tournament. Meanwhile, with the terrible records that the upper Maegashira rikishi have had this basho, even though Tochiozan is down at M5 he could make a leap up to sanyaku next basho (remember, Kaisei himself leapt up to komosubi directly from M7)  . . . and a ninth win would help make that promotion more likely.  (8:30)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (10–4) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (12–2)—After thirteen days of looking and fighting like a champion, Kisenosato looked like a chump yesterday. Today is his chance to show his fighting spirit and make sure that he stakes sole claim to the runner-up position for this basho. Meanwhile, Harumafuji wants to avoid a 10–5 record, which is considered pretty weak for a yokozuna. Two great rikishi with their pride on the line—that has the makings of a great match. (10:20)

Yokozuna Hakuho (14–0) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (11–3)—The yusho may be decided, but as I said above, Hakuho still has some very real reasons to give it his all in this match. On the other hand, Kakuryu has his yokozuna pride on the line . . . he wants to show that SOMEBODY can beat Hakuho, and he aims to be that somebody. Kakuryu may not be a great yokozuna, but he certainly IS a champion and that makes him a dangerous opponent. (10:47)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 14)

Let the final weekend of the Natsu Basho begin! As Day 14 dawns there is one man atop the leaderboard, and only one man who can catch him. After their terrific head to head match yesterday, yokozuna Hakuho remains undefeated and controls his own destiny, while ozeki Kisenosato now MUST win his final two matches AND hope that Hakuho stumbles along the way.

Another interesting thing to ponder—if Hakuho can win both of his remaining matches and get a zensho yusho [tournament championship with no losses] he will have a 29-match winning streak going into the next basho in July. One of the few records that has eluded him in his incredible career is, in fact, longest winning streak. That record is held by the great Futabayama, who won 69 straight matches in 1936. Hakuho is currently tied for second place, having had a 63-win streak in 2010. Of course, in order to even challenge for the record, Hakuho would have to go zensho [no losses] for ALL of the July AND September tournaments . . . which is a VERY tall order at this stage of his career. But before that even becomes a question, he’d have to finish out THIS basho with a perfect record.

Meanwhile, Kisenosato is seeing his yokozuna promotion chances slip away. Those rumors I was talking about at the start of the tournament may have just been that—rumors—because none of the commentators have been talking about them here as the end of the tournament nears. Word was that if Kisenosato had a zensho tournament, or won the yusho [tournament championship] with a 14–1 record, he would get promoted to yokozuna. At this point it seems entirely possible that he’ll get that 14–1 record . . . but not the yusho. In fact, it looks MOST likely that Kisenosato is going to get the 10th second-place finish of his career. Like yokozuna Harumafuji, Kisenosato is just unlucky to have come along in the era of Hakuho. At any other point in sumo history, he’d have won several yusho by now, and quite possibly have secured a yokozuna promotion.

Looking at the rest of the field going into the weekend, twelve rikishi have already secured their kachikoshi [majority of wins] while seventeen already have makekoshi [majority of losses]. Of those still undecided, four are 7–6 and must get one more win in the final two days to have winning records. However, EIGHT rikishi have 6–7 records and must win BOTH remaining matches or face demotion. It’s looking like one of those tournaments where losers will outnumber winners by a significant number . . . and that means another big shake-up on the banzuke before the Nagoya Basho.

But we’ve still got two days worth of action remaining . . . so let’s see what those rikishi can do! Today’s feature matches include:

M15 Endo (10–3) vs. M5 Takayasu (9–4)—Two very good rikishi who are both having very good tournaments. After a sojourn in Juryo, Endo is showing what he’s really capable of. Already with double-digit wins, he’s a likely candidate for a special prize . . . but that case will be bolstered by adding to that total. More importantly, it will springboard him higher on the banzuke next basho. Meanwhile, Takayasu is also trying to get as big a boost as possible. With nearly all the sekiwake, komusubi, and upper Maegashira rikishi having losing records, there’s a very real possibility he could get promoted back into the sanyaku ranks . . . but he needs to finish strongly—preferably with ten or more wins—if he wants to improve those odds. (2:57)

Sekiwake Kotoyuki (6–7) vs. komusubi Kaisei (6–7)—Both of these rikishi are at the highest ranks of their careers—two of the toughest ranks on the banzuke—and both still have a chance to pull kachikoshi. Well, ONE of them will have a chance, because with identical 6–7 records, the one that loses today is going to be makekoshi. Today’s winner, of course, will still have to win tomorrow too if he wants to get that overall winning record. (5:30)

Yokozuna Hakuho (13–0) vs. yokozuna Harumafuji (10–3)—This is, I think, the biggest challenge remaining for Hakuho. Harumafuji is the closest thing he has to a nemesis—someone who actually can beat him two out of five times. If Hakuho wins, he’s guaranteed at least a tie for the yusho (which would mean a playoff after the end of tomorrow’s matches). If Harumafuji wins, there’s still a chance (albeit a slim one) that Kisenosato could retake sole possession of the lead. Harumafuji, on the other hand, is trying to salvage a fairly lackluster record for a yokozuna (who are expected to contend for the yusho pretty much every time). He also may have some revenge on his mind after Hakuho pulled a henka/trick play against him on senshuraku [the final day] of the March basho. (7:20)

Ozeki Kisenosato (12–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (10–3)—Kisenosato has had a terrific tournament, and yesterday’s loss was demoralizing. But if he wants to stay in the running for the yusho, not to mention prove to the Kyokai [Sumo Association] that he has the spirit of a yokozuna, he needs to bounce back today and show the same focus and fighting spirit that he’s had all basho. Meanwhile, Kakuryu (like Harumafuji) is trying to salvage some yokozuna pride by playing spoiler and not allowing a lower ranked rikishi stay in contention while he’s on the outs. Over the course of their career, Kisenosato actually has the advantage over Kakuryu, though they’ve pretty much been 50/50 over the last few years. (10:27)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 13)

We’re going into the final weekend of the Natsu Basho, and today is the day that the co-leaders, yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato, go head to head! They’ve still got a two-win lead over their closest competitors, so whoever wins today’s match will truly control his own destiny. A win today and two wins over the weekend . . . and that rikishi will be hoisting the Emperor’s Cup on Sunday evening.

Of course, the Saturday and Sunday matches will be tough ones, too . . . match-ups against yokozuna opponents who want to prove their worthiness by pulling down the would-be champions and perhaps forcing a final day playoff.

Oh, and then there’s the entire rest of the Makuuchi division. Yesterday I gave the bread down of how things looked on the kacikosho [majority of wins]/makekoshi [majority of losses] front. As a result of yesterday’s action, two more rikishi have secured their kachikoshi . . . but three more guaranteed themselves makekoshi. So the current nine kachikoshi, eleven makekoshi, and about twenty still on the bubble.

I could go on, but I know you really want to find out what happened in today’s action!

M14 Nishikigi (5–7) vs. M8 Mitakeumi (8–4)—This is Nishikigi’s first basho fighting in the Makuuchi division, and he started the tournament off with three straight wins, looking like he was here to stay. But since then, he’s only managed two more wins. Today he has to face Mitakeumi, who came up to Makuuchi last November and DID manage to get a kachikoshi the first time through. They’re two young, talented rikishi who are likely going to have a long rivalry. Today, though, it’s all about Nishikigi trying to save his rank . . . because at M14, a makekoshi is very likely going to send him back down to Juryo.  (3:40)

Sekiwake Kotoyuki (5–7) vs. M4 Yoshikaze (6–6)—”Tsuppari” is the straight ahead slapping and pushing that many rikishi do at the tachi-ai [initial charge]. However, some rikishi use tsuppari  as more than an opening gambit—it’s the heart of their style of sumo. Two of today’s top tsuppari practitioners square off here in a match that is sure to be a “slapfest.” Both are still scratching and clawing (and slapping) away in hopes of reaching kachikoshi, though Kotoyuki must win ALL of his remaining matches if he wants to get there. Yoshikaze can still spare one more loss. (8:35)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (10–2) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (9–3)—This is the first of the yokozuna vs. yokozuna matches of the basho. Those are always exciting to watch, but this one is unlikely to have an outcome on the yusho [tournament championship]. If Harumafuji wins, he’s still mathematically in the race, but he’d need BOTH of the leaders to lose twice over their remaining three matches. Bear in mind that they go head to head in the next match, so ONE of them is guaranteed a loss, and both will have to fight Harumafuji over the weekend, so he’d be able help his own cause. On the other hand, if Kakuryu wins, both these yokozuna are out of the race, because at this point the MOST losses the leader at the end of Sunday can have will be 2. (9:45)

Yokozuna Hakuho (12–0) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (12–0)—This is it. After building it up (even in the description of another pair’s match), you know . . . these are our two unbeaten leaders, and one of them is going to fall into second place. The big question for me is, given how Hakuho has pulled some strange maneuvers during key matches in the last couple of tournaments, will he do something tricky again or will he just do the straight-up “I am the champion!” sumo he’s been showing the last few days? There’s only one way to find out! (10:11)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 12)

The Natsu Basho is winding down, but the yusho race remains red hot! (I can’t believe I just typed that.) It’s Day 12 of the summer tournament and two rikishi—yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato—remain undefeated and tied atop the leaderboard, two wins ahead of their closest competition.

Hakuho looked overwhelmingly powerful in his win over Kotoshogiku yesterday, rolling the ozeki off the dohyo with incredible force. It was the most devastating throw I’ve seen in quite some time. Meanwhile, Kisenosato made short work of Ikioi, handing the sekiwake his makekoshi [majority of losses] and guaranteeing he won’t keep his rank for July’s tournament.

At the end of the day, four more rikishi notched their eighth losses, bringing the total of competitors who are already makekoshi to six. There are seven more with 4–7 records who will become makekoshi if they lose even one more bout, and eight more with 5–6 records who must win more than half of their remaining bouts in order to avoid makekoshi.

On the positive side, seven rikishi have already reached kachikoshi [majority of wins], with five more at 7–4 and only needing one more win to seal the deal. That leaves five rikishi at 6–5 and need two more wins to get kachikoshi.

Today’s feature matches include:

M4 Yoshikaze (5–6) vs. M2 Ichinojo (4–7)—Two rikishi who have pretty much embodied how things can change over the course of a tournament. Yoshikaze started the basho off terribly and looked like he might be headed not just for makekoshi, but for double-digit losses. Over the past few days he’s gotten a lot of enthusiasm and still has a chance to pull out a winning record. Meanwhile, Ichinojo looked so good at the start of the basho I kept paying him compliments because I’d been so harsh on him in the past. But as the tail end of Week 1 approached, all his progress seemed to slip away. He’s back to moving sluggishly and performing without an ounce of enthusiasm or creativity. Rumor is that he may have reinjured his back, but that doesn’t look like what’s going on. It’s unclear which version of either rikishi will show up today, but Yoshikaze can only afford one more loss to keep his kachikoshi dreams alive . . . and Ichinojo will be makekoshi if he loses even one more match. (5:15)

Ozeki Kisenosato (11–0) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (2–9)—It’s really painful to see Terunofuji out there when he’s so obviously unable to perform. I’d say it would take a miracle for him to get a third win this basho. So the question today isn’t so much whether Kisenosato will continue his unbeaten streak, but HOW he will. (8:20)

Ozeki Kotoshogiku (6–5) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (9–2)—Kotoshogiku still needs two more wins to get his kachikoshi, and he’s at the point in the tournament where he’s got to fight the toughest opponents. He’s got a decent shot today against Kakuryu (the least competitive of the yokozuna) . . . and he’d really BETTER take advantage of it! (8:45)

Yokozuna Hakuho (11–0) vs. ozeki Goeido (7–4)—Goeido has been looking very solid this basho . . . but he still needs one more win to lock down his kachikoshi . . . and he needs to win 3 out of 4 if he wants to get to double-digit wins (which is something an ozeki should generally do out of hand). Meanwhile, Hakuho has his eye on the prize . . . and he sees that Goeido is in his way. (9:05)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 11)

Two-thirds of the Natsu Basho is past now … only five days remain, and what do we see here on Day 11? We see yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato still unbeaten and still two wins ahead of their closest competition.

The big match of the day yesterday pitted Kisenosato against fellow ozeki Kotoshogiku. After winning the January basho, Kotoshogiku has fallen back to being a relatively strong ozeki who quickly falls out of contention for the yusho [tournament championship]. Now, to be fair, his first two losses came against rikishi who pulled wicked henka maneuvers against him . . . but Kotoshogiku didn’t do himself any favors by falling for them so badly that he basically did belly flops onto the dohyo. He’s show that when he’s being aggressive, he’s vulnerable . . . but when he isn’t being aggressive, he doesn’t have the fire necessary to win a tournament—a perplexing predicament that he’ll have to solve if he ever wants to hoist the Emperor’s cup again.

Anyway, Kisenosato looked terrific in his win of Kotoshogiku. That is, he looked determined, focused, and resourceful. Less good was the fact that Kotoshogiku managed to put Kisenosato into really dangerous positions TWICE in a relatively short bout . . . but thankfully, Kisenosato was able to come up with great counter-maneuvers three times!

We’ve had our first couple of rikishi notch makekoshi [majority of losses] and we’ve got a couple of matches today that pit two 3–7 rikishi against each other, so we’ll see at least a few more today. It’s already looking like there’s going to be a big shake up on the banzuke [ranking sheet] before the start of the Nagoya basho in July . . . but maybe some of the rikishi who are in danger can turn their luck around before it’s too late.

Today’s top matches include:

Sekiwake Kotoyuki (4–6) vs. M2 Shodai (3–7)—Kotoyuki is in the midst of the sekiwake’s dilemma—having faced all the top-tier rikishi in Week 1, he’s trying to dominate through Week 2 to get his kachikoshi [majority of wins]. At this point, he must win four of his final five matches. His opponent today has a very special story. Shodai has been in sumo for only a little more than two years, but he’s risen up to the Maegashira 2 rank so quickly because he has NEVER gotten a makekoshi. He’s had twelve straight kachikoshi! But now his back is against the wall. At 3–7, he must will ALL of his remaining matches or he’ll garner his first ever losing record. (7:20)

Ozeki Kisenosato (10–0) vs. sekiwake Ikioi (3–7)—Kisenosato’s big win yesterday has to fill him with confidence. Meanwhile, Ikioi seems like he can’t buy a win. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if his head was still ringing from the near knockout blow that yokozuna Hakuho gave him the other day.) But Ikioi has the tools to beat the ozeki . . . IF he can put it all together in one match. (7:50)

Yokozuna Hakuho (10–0) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (6–4)—Hakuho has been showing hints that his arm is sore . . . or tired . . . or something. Lately he hasn’t been going into the tachi-ai with a straight ahead blast, he’s been using stealthier maneuvers. But while Kotoshogiku has proven that he’s vulnerable to a henka, I don’t think we’ll see on from the yokozuna today. As long as Hakuho doesn’t let Kotoshogiku stand him up at the tachi-ai and bumpity-bump him out of the ring, I’m pretty sure the yokozuna will find some kind of way to remain undefeated. (8:45)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (8–2) vs. komusubi Kaisei (5–5)—I haven’t said enough good things about Kaisei this basho. He’s normally a very unreliable rikishi, with the quality of his sumo varying from day to day. This basho he’s looked terrific every day. Unfortunately, at the rank of komusubi, you need to do more than LOOK good. He’s still got a shot a kachikoshi, but a match against a yokozuna isn’t going to make it any easier. Meanwhile, Harumafuji has been fighting strong and looking like a champion . . . except for a couple of days.  (9:15)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 10)

Yesterday was probably the most exciting day of matches for the Natsu Basho so far . . . and look where it’s got us. Here at the start of Day 10 we’ve got two undefeated rikishi—yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato—with ZERO rikishi one win behind. With both yokozuna Harumafuji and ozeki Goeido losing on Monday, the closest competition to the leaders is a group of four rikishi with 7–2 records.

Now, of course, anything could happen on a given day (as yesterday exemplified), but at this point BOTH Hakuho and Kisenosato would have to make major slips for any of the other rikishi to get a chance to slip back into contention. And the way both of them made quick work of tough competition yesterday (seriously, I was really impressed with the way Kisenosato handled Goeido . . . and Hakuho literally knocked Ikioi off his feet) that just doesn’t seem at all likely. My biggest hope now is that both the leaders continue to show strong sumo and that they remain unbeaten until the meet head-to-head (probably on Friday).

The second week is where the sekiwake, komusubi, and upper maegashira rikishi have a chance to prove themselves. They’ve finished with their matches against ozeki and yokozuna. If they’re lucky, they picked up a couple of wins. But if they want to keep their high ranks for the next tournament, they have to be dominant in the final seven days. All of the lower sanyaku rikishi have a CHANCE to get kachikoshi [majority of wins], but with Kotoyuki and Kaisei at 4–5 and Ikio and Okinoumi at 3–6, they don’t have much wiggle room. They need to start winning EVERY match they get.

In point of fact, right now we once again have a basho where NONE of the upper maegashira rikishi are doing well. Once you get below the rank of ozeki, the next sumotori with a winning record so far is M4 Tochinoshinand M5 Tochiozan, who are both 6–3. The fact that this keeps happening over and over from basho to basho is just proof of what a huge talent gap there is currently between the top tier rikishi and the rest of the Makuuchi division. No one is there, showing dominance over their competition, knocking on the door of ozeki, and pressing to get in.

What you want is a lot of upward pressure—rikishi getting winning records but being unable to move up because the rikishi above them aren’t making makekoshi [majority of losses]. Perhaps as the new crop of up-and-comers get a little more experience under their mawashi, we’ll see some of that later in the year. Or maybe the current high-rankers will rise up to the challenge beginning today.

Matches of the day include:

M15 Endo (6–3) vs. M8 Mitakeumi (7–2)—Two years ago, Endo was the fresh, new, up-and-coming Japanese-born rikishi that the fans were going ga-ga over. They expected him to be the new rising star . . . and that hasn’t quite panned out the way they’d hoped. Endo is good, particularly for a relatively small rikishi, but he hasn’t shown what it takes to climb to the very top ranks. Toward the end of last year Mitakeumi came on the scene to very similar hopes and expectations, and he’s been doing well. He’s still growing and, indeed, he hasn’t even been around long enough to put his hair into a proper ochio [ginko leaf style topknot]. What happens when two fan favorites go head-to-head? THIS happens. (1:40)

M10 Sadanoumi (5–4) vs. M7 Osunaarashi (6–3)—This isn’t really one of the best matches of the day, but it does show Osunaarashi asserting his dominant power-sumo approach again. (3:45)

M9 Sokokurai (4–5) vs. M4 Tochinoshin (6–3)—Speaking of power sumo, Tochinoshi doesn’t seem to want to be out-done. And apparently he’s been fighting all tournament with a cracked rib. WOW! (5:07)

Ozeki Kisenosato (9–0) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (6–3)—This is the match of the day, today. Two ozeki who have gone head-to-head more times than any two rikishi in sumo history. One who won a yusho in January . . . the other gunning for the yusho this basho. (7:40)

Yokozuna Hakuho (9–0) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (2–7)—And just to round out the day’s coverage, the other co-leader takes on the wounded warrior . . . and the match doesn’t unfold exactly as anyone probably would have predicted (though I don’t think many people lost money betting on the final result). (10:07)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 9)

<<NOTE: Sorry for the late posting today. I’ve started a new contract job which puts me back in an office from 9-to-5, so unless I get up super early (which is HIGHLY unlikely to happen) I won’t be able to do my sumo coverage until after I get home. I’ll still write my “start of the day” opening section before watching the matches, though, so I’m not “cheating” on my predictions . . . but selecting the matches of the day will naturally have to wait until I’ve had a chance to see them myself. So for the foreseeable future, this is how the sumo coverage will roll . . . except, of course, on the weekends.>>

It’s Day 9 of the Natsu Basho, and as we start Week 2 yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato still sit alone atop the leaderboard having secured their kachikoshi [majority of wins] with perfect 8–0 records. However, with M5 Tochiozan’s loss to up-and-comer M8 Mitakeumi, there are also only two rikishi remaining one win off the pace at 7–1—yokozuna Harumafuji and ozeki Goeido.

As the ozeki and yokozuna begin to face off against each other, we’re going to start to see the matches that will define the yusho [tournament championship] race. The first of those will be today as Kisenosato and Goeido go head to head. It’s not much hyperbole to say that the whole tournament hangs on this match. If Kisenosato wins, he’ll still be on track for both the yusho and a yokozuna promotion, putting a bit of pressure on Hakuho to keep up (who faces sekiwake Ikioi today). On the other hand, if Goeido wins, Hakuho will have a chance to put himself alone atop the leaderboard and then control his own destiny—and he’s shown himself to have a fairly strong hand on the tiller when those situations arise.

I have to say again how impressed I’ve been with Goeido’s performance over the past two tournaments. For the previous year he was a real sad sack ozeki, narrowly escaping kadoban [threat of ozeki demotion] only to have a losing record the following basho and then be kadoban again. He seems to have found his “ozeki pride” and figured out what he needs to do to dominate the sekiwake and komusubi the way an ozeki is supposed to. Now, instead of struggling for kachikoshi, it’s looking like he’s likely to get double-digit wins and is in the thick of the hunt for the yusho. I hope this is a permanent change and that Goeido remains a solid, reliable ozeki . . . particularly because Terunofuji is struggling with injuries and seems destined to be kadoban for the second time in Nagoya come July.

Yesterday I mentioned that it seemed like there were an unusual number of rikishi on the verge of starting the final week with 4–4 records . . . but in the end it turned out to be nine, about one-third of the total rikishi in the top division. Or generally about what statistics would lead you to expect.

There were a BUNCH of great matches today . . . if you don’t watch the entire second half of this video, then you’ll be missing SOMETHING cool. That having been said, here are my picks for matches of the day.

M2 Shodai (2–6) vs. M3 Aoiyama (2–6)—Two rikishi who are ranked towards the top of the banzuke [ranking list] and are struggling this basho, but it’s clear they both still have plenty of fighting spirit. (6:00)

Sekiwake Kotoyuki (3–5) vs. M1 Myogiryu (3–5)—Two more struggling rikishi. Kotoyuki is actually in a relatively good position for a sekiwake, though. When you’re at that rank, your first week is always filled with bouts against yokozuna and ozeki, so the goal is to grab two or three wins and make sure you’ve got enough gas left to dominate the lower ranked opponents you face in Week 2. Kotoyuki did the first part, with wins over ozeki Goeido and yokozuna Kakuryu . . . now he has to do the second part and get at lest five wins over the remaining seven days. (6:35)

Ozeki Kisenosato (8–0) vs. ozeki Goeido (7–1)—This is the big match of the day. As I discussed above, it will shape the rest of the tournament. Both ozeki are fighting well this basho, so there isn’t an obvious advantage to either one. Kisenosato is tied at the top of the leaderboard, and he’s got the promise of his first yusho [tournament championship] pulling him forward. But Goeido is just a win off the pace, and he knows that if he gets a second loss the chances of him getting back into contention for the yusho are fairly slim. Should be a very good match. (7:25)

Yokozuna Hakuho (8–0) vs. sekiwake Ikioi (3–5)—At first, I didn’t really think this was going to be a highlight of the day. After all, Hakuho has a perfect record and is doing absolutely dominant sumo, while Ikioi is struggling. But without giving any spoilers, I must say that I NEVER expected the match to go quite the way it did. Take my word for it . . . just be sure to watch this one. (8:55)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (7–1) vs. komusubi Okinoumi (2–6)—Harumafuji has been pushed hard this basho, and like a true yokozuna, in almost every case he’s found a way to pull out a win. Okinoumi, on the other hand, has fought hard, but more often than not found a way to lose. But they’re both looking strong and fit, and their styles of sumo match up very well. And you never know what sort of magic can happen on the final match of the day. (9:50)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 Nakabi [The Middle Day] (Day 8)

Wow! The Natsu Basho is just flying by! We’re already at Day 8, the exact middle of the 15-day tournament which is referred to as “Nakabi” (literally “the middle day,” creatively enough). After starting off with all the top-tier rikishi looking strong and performing just the way they ought to (that is, winning against lower ranked opponents), the last few days have seen them begin to quickly fall off the pace. We have only two remaining undefeated rikishi—yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kisenosato—and only three rikishi one win off the pace—yokozuna Harumafuji, ozeki Goeido, and M5 Tochiozan.

Yokozuna Kakuryu’s upset loss to sekiwake Kotoyuki yesterday has thrown him into the mix with a handful of other rikishi that have 5–2 records, along with ozeki Kotoshogiku. But worst of all among the top tier is ozeki Terunofuji who really, seriously needs to withdraw from this basho. If he won’t then I honestly think that his oyakata [Stable Master] should just exercise his prerogative and make the decision for him. With a 2–5 record, there is no way that Terunofuji will avoid makekoshi [majority of losses], but as an ozeki he doesn’t need to worry about mitigating how bad his record is . . . he won’t be demoted this time, he’ll just be kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] in July. So his best play is to stop doing further damage to his legs for the next week and just start the healing process.

For the first time, yesterday, Hakuho looked vulnerable. Although he beat M3 Aoiyama relatively quickly, he didn’t look comfortable doing it. And to tell the truth, Aoiyama lost his balance on his own when his heel slipped on the loose clay—Hakuho really didn’t do anything except make sure that gravity finished its work on the big Bulgarian. It certainly leaves one to wonder how the yokozuna will fare against the quick and aggressive Kotoyuki today.

If there’s been a theme through the first week of the basho, it’s been parity. A LOT of the rikishi are either 3–4 or 4–3. It’ll be interesting to see how many 4–4 rikishi we have on Monday.

Matches of the day:

M15 Endo (5–2) vs. M11 Shohozan (5–2)—Two former-sanyaku rikishi, now down in the bottom half of the banzuke [ranking sheet], who are both having really terrific tournaments. Endo looks better than he has in half a year, and Shohozan is seeming strong and confident. Both have 5–2 records and seem on their way to kachikoshi [majority of wins] with a reasonable chance to reach double-digit victories. Of course, on one of them will get his sixth win today. (1:20)

Komusubi Kaisei (2–5) vs. sekiwake Ikioi (3–4)—Neither of these two sanyaku-level rikishi are having a good tournament, and both need a very strong Week 2 if they hope to keep sanyaku rankings in July. Again, only one of them will take a step closer to that goal today. Kaisei has the lead in their head-to-head, and has beaten Ikioi the last four times they’ve met. Should be a good match.  (6:55)

M7 Osunaarashi (5–2) vs. M4 Tochinoshin (5–2)—You want power sumo? It’s just about guaranteed in this match between two big, strong rikishi who both have a penchant for lifting their opponents and placing them outside the ring. Both are coming back from injuries suffered in late 2012, and both are looking fit and strong this basho with matching 5–2 records. (4:40)

Ozeki Kisenosato (7–0) vs. M4 Yoshikaze (2–5)—On paper, this seems like Kisenosato’s match easily. The ozeki is, of course, undefeated and tied atop the leaderboard, while Yoshikaze only has two wins at a mid-maegashira rank. Over the course of the last year, however, these two have split their head-to-head decisions (though admittedly, lifetime Kisenosato has a big lead in that category). Whatever magic Yoshikaze had in 2012 seems to have faded, though, and while he seems strong, fast, and focused, he just hasn’t been able to pull in the wins like he was then. Despite what the “tale of the tape” says, though, I think this is going to be a closely fought affair that could go either way. (7:46)

Yokozuna Hakuho (6–1) vs. sekiwake Kotoyuki (3–4)—Kotoyuki is fresh off a win over yokozuna Kakuryu yesterday, while Hakuho had a very strange performance in his win over Aoiyama. As a result, I’m really not sure what to expect from this match-up. Certainly, I think that Hakuho will find a way to win . . . I just don’t really feel I can predict what that way will be. One of the “problems” is that Kotoyuki’s biggest weapon is his youthful exuberance (he’s only just turned twenty-five, remember)—he’s ready and willing to take a poke at anyone and isn’t sitting on ceremony. I don’t think he can chase Hakuho around the ring the way he did with Kakuryu, but he’s going to go in swinging . . . and Hakuho doesn’t seem to like it when opponents fail to show proper respect to his station. (8:40)

 

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 7)

Day 7 of the Natsu Basho dawns with only TWO undefeated rikishi remaining—yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki/yokozuna-hopeful Kisenosato! The herky-jerky tachi-ai [initial charge] at the start of ozeki Goeido’s match against sekiwake Kotoyuki seemed to throw Goeido for a look . . . and off the top of the leaderboard.

Another ozeki, Kotoshogiku, lost his SECOND match of the basho . . . again to a wicked henka, this time from M1 Miyogiryu. It seems like when Kotoshogiku is being aggressive, he’s actually launching himself like a missile. As long as you take away the target, all he can do is sprawl out on the dohyo. As much as I dislike the frequency that we’re seeing henka, an ozeki can’t use such an easily beaten move as his main strategy.

While I’m saying bad things about ozeki, let me say that Terunofuji really ought to bow out, take the rest of the basho off, and hope that whatever’s bothering him heals up before July. He’s looking terrible against opponents from the mid-Maegashira ranks . . . it’s only going to get worse when he starts having to face his fellow ozeki and the yokozunas.

It’s the middle weekend, when all kinds of strange things tend to happen. It’s when strong rikishi like Kisenosato, Tochinoshin, and Osunaarashi tend to lose focus let victory slip from their grasps. It’s when squirrely rikishi like Yoshikaze, Kotoyuki, and Miyogiryu often pull up stunning upsets and begin a march to glory. And, if nothing else, it’s the time when the Kyokai [sumo Association] picks some good-for-TV-ratings marquee match-ups.

Something I didn’t expect is that after what looked like a basho-ending injury on Day 1, M12 Amuru returned to action today. He starts the basho six losses in the hole, so I’m not sure what the point really is. He ought to just accept the fact that he’ll be down in Juryo for July and let his knee rest so he’ll be as healthy as possible as he tries to claw his way back up to the top division.

Saturday’s feature matches include:

Komusubi Kaisei (1–5) vs. komusubi Okinoumi (1–5)—These two are having a matching basho. Both of these rikishi suffered tough losses yesterday. Kaisei fought ozeki Kisenosato for over two minutes and gave a valiant defense on the ring’s edge, and Okinoumi’s match against sekiwake Ikioi went just as long and ended when they both forced each other face first into the clay . . . but Okinoumi’s hand landed first. They’re both 1–5 and desperately in need of a win to (hopefully) start a comeback drive for an improbable kachikoshi [majority of wins]. Only one of them will get it today. (5:16)

Ozeki Kisenosato (6–0) vs. M2 Ichinojo (3–3)—Ichinojo lost to one of the current leaders yesterday, but he gets a crack at the other one today. He’s looking better this basho, but the top-tier rikishi are showing that he’s still got holes in his game. Meanwhile, Kisenosato has been trying be as calm, cool, and dominant as Hakuho . . . but only managed the first two. He’s been tested a fair bit in Week 1, and while he’s come out on top every time so far, he has a history of pushing his luck just a little too far—particularly in the middle weekend. (7:10)

Sekiwake Kotoyuki (2–4) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (5–1)—Kotoyuki has been running hot and cold this basho. Sometimes showing real grit against champion-level opponents, and sometimes not seeming comfortable in his own skin. He’s only ever faced Kakuryu once before (a loss on Day 4 in Osaka two months ago), a quick loss where the yokozuna basically rolled him on the tachi-ai [initial charge]. But even in his losses this time, Kotoyuki has often managed to get his opponents backpedalling, and Kakuryu really prefers to control the pace of his matches. (8:40)

Yokozuna Hakuho (6–0) vs. M3 Aoiyama (2–4)—The final match of the day featured our other co-leader—Hakuho. He’s been very aggressive and physical this basho. Aoiyama, on the other hand is ALWAYS physical—that’s about the only trick in his bag, but at his size he does it pretty well (and he’s usually a lot nimbler about it than Ichinojo is). The rumor mill is still buzzing that despite his perfect record, Hakuho’s right arm is still bothering him . . . and he’ll need both hands to handle the “Blue Mountain.” (9:08)

SUMO: Natsu Basho 2016 (Day 6)

We’re one-third of the way through the Natsu Basho and suddenly the tournament looks a little different than it did a day or two ago. Early in the week I commented about how unusual it was that all of the top level rikishi were performing pretty much the way they were EXPECTED to by winning their early matches. Well, over the last few days they proved me wrong.

Here at the start of Day 6 only THREE of them remain undefeated—yokozuna Hakuho, ozeki Kisenosato, and ozeki Goeido. One win off the pace are yokozuna Kakuryu, yokozuna Harumafuji, ozeki Kotoshogiku, M4 Tochinoshin, M5 Tochiozan, M5 Takayasu, M11 Shohozan, and M15 Endo.

Kakuryu’s loss to sekiwake Ikioi yesterday put a stall on the yokozuna’s yusho [tournament championship] hopes (though he’s certainly still in the hunt) and breathed new life into Ikioi’s hopes of holding on to his current rank.

The one rikishi I haven’t talked much about this basho is yokozuna Hakuho, and that’s because he’s just looking like his strong and steady self. None of his first five opponents have given him much of a challenge and he hasn’t shown off any unusual tactics. In fact, the most you could say about Hakuho is that he may be slightly flouting the order from the Kyokai [Sumo Association] to rein in the dame-oshi [an extra shove after a match is concluded]. One commentator said that Hakuho seems to have made a perhaps deliberate move away from being the serene practitioner of perfect sumo into being something of an aggressive alpha-sumo, almost a little bit of a “black hat” bad guy. While I don’t buy into that particular interpretation (yet), it is clear that Hakuho is putting exclamation points at the end of many of his matches, as if to say, “I’m not as young as I used to be, but I still rule this roost!” And truly, he remains the odds-on favorite to win ANY match and to take the yusho.

But there are ten days of sumo between here and there.

Speaking of . . . today’s matches, there were quite a few very exciting ones. Several long struggles between equally matched opponents, starting with the first match of the day.

M15 Endo (4–1) vs. M14 Seiro (1–4)—Endo may be way down on the banzuke [ranking sheet], but currently he’s only one loss off the lead. Today he faces Seiro, who is just back from a stint in Juryo and MUST get his kachikoshi [majority of wins] if he wants to avoid going back down there again. So far, though, Seiro has not been having a great tournament. He is, however, a very game rikishi with a lot to prove. (0:15)

M9 Sokokurai (3–2) vs. M7 Osunaarashi (3–2)—It’s no secret that Osunaarashi is one of my favorite rikishi, but so far this tournament his matches haven’t been worth highlighting. They’ve all been over quickly without any of the shows of raw power that the Egyptian rikishi is known for. Today against Chinese rikishi Sokokurai, though, we get all that AND a bag of shrimp-flavored chips. A TERRIFIC match! (3:31)

Komusubi Okinoumi (1–4) vs. sekiwake Ikioi (2–3)—Two of the strongest Japanese-born rikishi square off, both of them struggling a bit in their quests for kachikoshi and a chance to stay in sanyaku. Ikioi is fresh off his upset of yokozuna Kakuryu, so he has to be careful about being overconfident. Meanwhile, Okinoumi hasn’t been able to buy a break this basho, and is really hungry to get back to his winning ways. (6:30)

Ozeki Kisenosato (5–0) vs. komusubi Kaisei (1–4)—Kisenosato is still unbeaten and still on the path that the Kyokai [sumo association] has set for him to achieve a promotion to yokozuna. He knows what he has to do—beat everyone he faces. Today that’s Kaisei, who has a well-earned reputation for having a strong A-game and a much less impressive B-game, and  seemingly deciding at random which one he’ll bring on any given day. Even though he only has one win so far, though, it’s because of the quality of the opponents he’s faced . . . it’s been all Kaisei A so far. Let’s hope that Kisenosato brings his A-game, too, because that would make for a terrific “power sumo” match! (7:37)

Sekiwake Kotoyuki (1–4) vs. ozeki Goeido (5–0)—Goeido is putting together the same kind of impressive performance he did in March. No longer does he look like a sad sack ozeki barely holding on to his rank, instead he’s been sharp and dominant and has earned his current spot atop the leaderboard. Meanwhile, Kotoyuki is struggling in his first ever basho ranked at sekiwake (one of the toughest ranks there is). The big problem is that he’s lost his last two matches against equal or lower ranked opponents . . . and as a sekiwake, that’s a recipe for makekoshi [majority of losses]. Now he NEEDS a few upset victories to get him back on track. (10:00)

Yokozuna Hakuho (5–0) vs. M2 Ichinojo (3–2)—A few tournaments ago, Hakuho gave Ichinojo a derisive dame-oshi slap across the face, as if to say that the young Mongolian was embarrassing himself and his countrymen. (Hakuho is also Mongolian, as are all the other yokozuna.) We know about the struggles Ichinojo had over the next few basho, but this time he’s looking strong and fighting well. He already has a win over yokozuna Harumafuji and sekiwake Kotoyuki, and is looking to prove his worth. Hakuho, as I was discussing at the start of this post, is looking strong as ever and has no desire to give up his spot at the top of the leaderboard. (11:05)